After a 38-day walkout, Texas Democrats who fled the state capitol to block Republican efforts to pass harsh new voting restrictions returned to the floor of the state house of representatives.
The house now has the required two-thirds of members necessary for a quorum to conduct legislative business, and Republicans have already scheduled a hearing on the voting bill for Saturday. The standoff reached a tipping point last week after Republicans authorized law enforcement to find and arrest their missing Democratic colleagues and lead them back to the capitol.
Over the past few days, some legislators who remained in Texas had been nervously hopping from one place to the other to avoid being caught and brought in. Some returned home and resumed their day jobs â€“ which many legislators have in a state where the house meets only once every other year.
Instead of a unified and celebratory return by Democrats, some members lashed out at their colleagues over what they criticized as breaking ranks. Many of the proposed changes to Texas voting that Democrats have railed against for months remain in a bill that already passed the state senate, and Republican governor Greg Abbott could now sign the legislation in a matter of weeks, if not sooner.
Only three new Democrats showed up Thursday, and the vast majority of the more than 50 Democrats who bolted to Washington in July continue to stay away from the Texas capitol. Still, Republican house speaker Dade Phelan said enough were there to achieve a quorum, which in the house is normally 100 legislators.
Growing impatience among Republicans had led to escalating threats that missing lawmakers could face arrest, but officers never appeared to do more than leave warrants at Democratsâ€™ homes.
â€œItâ€™s been a very long summer. Been through a lot. I appreciate you all being here,â€ Phelan said. â€œItâ€™s time to get back to the business of the people of Texas.â€
Not all Democrats joined in the holdout, and the newest to come back to the Texas house defended their decision, saying they had successfully pushed Congress on voting rights legislation while pointing to the growing urgency of surging Covid-19 caseloads in Texas. One of them, Garnet Coleman, did not go to Washington because he was recovering from having a leg amputation brought on by an infection.
â€œOne of the things in life is that we have to know what our responsibilities are and we have to work to move something in the direction we want it to be,â€ Coleman said from a wheelchair while delivering the prayer on the house floor.
But other Democrats who remained absent did not hide their frustration.
â€œThis is how Texas Democrats lose elections,â€ state representative Michelle Beckley tweeted.
Abbott now has an opening to divert attention from criticism by Texasâ€™ largest cities and school districts over his handling of worsening Covid numbers.
Abbott, who is up for reelection in 2022, had also jammed the agenda of this latest 30-day special session which is nearly half over with other hot-button conservative issues including border security and how race is taught in public schools.
Abbott this week tested positive for Covid-19, although his office had said the 63-year-old governor did not have symptoms. It leaves Democrats much in the same position as when the holdout started: unable to permanently stop the GOP-controlled legislature from setting new limits and rules on how more than 16 million registered voters can cast a ballot.
And federal voting rights protections that Texas Democrats lobbied for while in Washington still face long odds of getting around GOP opposition in Congress.